Sunak faces UK Parliamentary showdown over Rwanda asylum programme

  • Parliament is due to vote at 1900 GMT
  • Sunak’s party was split by the emergency
  • The rebels want to block legal appeals against the Rwanda project

LONDON, Dec 12 (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces the biggest parliamentary test of his premiership on Tuesday as lawmakers vote on a British plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Last month, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda was an unsafe place to send people arriving in small boats off the UK’s south coast, and that the policy breached British and international law.

In response, Sunak agreed to a new treaty with Rwanda and introduced emergency legislation to address violations of domestic and international human rights law.

The move has deeply divided his party, with moderates and right-wing politicians worried about Britain breaching its human rights obligations arguing it does not go far enough.

“We believe the best solution here is to suspend today’s legislation and come back with a new bill,” Simon Clarke, a Conservative lawmaker on the far right of the party, told BBC radio.

After 13 years in power and trailing the opposition Labor Party by 20 points ahead of next year’s expected election, Sunak’s Conservatives are in many ways fractured and losing their discipline.

Lawmakers on the far right, who said they would vote against or not vote on the bill, want to bar asylum seekers from having any legal means to appeal deportation.

Michael Tomlinson, the junior minister responsible for illegal migration policy, said it was incompatible with British values.

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“Even during the Second World War we didn’t close claims going to court,” he told BBC radio.

Governments around the world are grappling with rising migration levels, and some are looking to the British plan to see if it works. In a blow to President Emmanuel Macron, French lawmakers last night rejected their immigration bill.

Important vote

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in the Downing Street briefing room on December 7, 2023 in London, Britain. By James Manning/Pool REUTERS/File Photo Get license rights

The British Parliament will hold its first vote on the legislation on Tuesday evening. Only 30 Conservative MPs would be needed to vote with the opposition to defeat the bill.

Even if it passes, Sunak faces attempts to toughen it through amendments at later stages and opposition in the unelected upper house, the House of Lords.

Defeat would be a major embarrassment for Sunak – no government has lost a referendum at this early stage in the parliamentary process since 1986 – and would severely weaken his hold on his party.

He hosted a breakfast for some lawmakers in the party’s right-wing wing on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to convince centrist lawmakers to back the bill, after they said they would support it as long as it was not toughened.

Chung is Britain’s fifth Conservative prime minister in seven years after the vote to leave the European Union polarized the country’s politics, leading to repeated instability.

The battle has echoes of parliamentary clashes over Brexit from 2017-19, when then-Prime Minister Theresa May suffered repeated defeats following rebellions by a large number of Conservative politicians that eventually led to her exit.

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Sunak has made stopping boat traffic one of his biggest priorities. Around 29,000 asylum seekers have arrived this year – a drop of around a third compared to last year.

The vast majority of immigrants enter legally through other means. But the tiny inflatable boats crossing the Channel are the most visible sign of the government’s failure to control Britain’s borders – a key promise of Brexit campaigners.

The Conservatives have repeatedly failed to meet targets to reduce immigration, which has soared even after Brexit stripped EU citizens of their right to free movement, with net immigration reaching 745,000 last year.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, described the Rwanda policy as an “expensive gimmick” that prevented the government from focusing on more practical measures. He said that if we come to power, we will repeal the bill.

Britain has so far paid 240 million pounds ($300 million) to Rwanda, but no one has yet been sent there. Even if the plan is scrapped, Rwanda will only have the capacity to resettle hundreds of refugees from Britain at a time.

($1 = 0.7971 pounds)

By Kate Holton and Andrew MacAskill, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Christina Finzer, Peter Graf

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Sarah reports on UK breaking news with a focus on British companies. He was part of the UK bureau for 12 years covering everything from airlines to energy, royalty, politics and sport. She is an avid open water swimmer.

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